Hillary Clinton’s laughter in media interviews

Daniel C. O’Connell and Sabine Kowal


Laughter in dialogue has been researched under the aegis of many different disciplines. The present approach is psycholinguistic, but with some reliance on recent research in phonetics and conversation analysis (CA). A corpus of laughter from four TV and two radio interviews of Hillary Clinton was analyzed by means of the PRAAT software (www.praat.org) for acoustic measurements. All the interviews had taken place in the several weeks immediately following the publication of her memoirs Living history (2003). The results showed that her laughter was concentrated mostly during the speech of the interviewers rather than during her own speech, and in the TV rather than in the radio interviews. The most frequent topic of her laughter concerned her own presidential candidacy rather than the historical contents of her book. The strong punctuation effect (Provine 1993, 2000), i.e., the claim that laughter occurs only during the pauses after phrases and sentences, was not confirmed; instead laughter occurred most frequently as a sort of back channeling on the part of the auditor. Contrary to the claim of Clayman and Heritage (2002) that media interviewers maintain a professional neutralism, interviewers in this corpus manifested their personal perspectives by laughing. These findings are discussed in light of current empirical research and in terms of a theory of perspectivity that conceptualizes laughter both in general and more specifically in media interviews as a nonverbal expression of personal perspective.

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